An international coalition of journalists, editors, and publishers has called for the immediate release of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from a British jail and demanded that all charges against him be dropped.
Fifteen representatives of international journalist and publishers’ unions and organizations from six countries gathered in Geneva on Wednesday for the “call to free Julian Assange in the name of press freedom.”
“We are demanding that Julian Assange be freed, returned to his family, and finally permitted to live a normal life,” said Dominique Pradalie, head of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which counts some 600,000 members across 140 countries.
The call came after the UK government approved the extradition of Assange to the US to face criminal charges despite an original ruling by a British judge that he should not be deported due to a risk of suicide and a warning by his lawyer that he remained at risk of harm in the US.
The case passed to the British home secretary last month after the UK Supreme Court ruled that there were no legal questions over assurances given by US authorities on Assange’s likely treatment.
The founder of WikiLeaks is set to appeal the decision to extradite him to the US, where he faces espionage charges and could face up to 175 years in jail if found guilty.
Assange, 50, is wanted by the US government for publishing about 750,000 classified military and diplomatic documents related to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The most damning batch was The Iraqi War Logs, which represent the biggest military leak in the history of the United States.
Pierre Ruetschi, the head of the Swiss Press Club hosting the event, warned that “democracy is being taken hostage” and said Wednesday’s gathering condemned the UK government decision as a “flagrant violation of human rights and a showing of total contempt for freedom of the press.”
“If Julian Assange can be threatened with prosecution as a spy, what might that mean for other journalists?” said Tim Dawson, of the National Union of Journalists of Britain and Ireland.
The petitioners also called on Swiss authorities, who have said they have worked to protect Assange, to facilitate his release by offering him a safe haven from further prosecution in Switzerland.
The Australian-born journalist, who has denied all accusations against him, has been held in a British prison for over 36 months. Before that, he spent seven years holed up at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, under threat of arrest by UK authorities.
Assange says he merely engaged in investigative journalistic activities that are legal in the US, and that accusations of him conspiring to hack the Pentagon’s computer systems were false. He and his supporters believe the accusations are politically motivated and “represent an unprecedented attack on press freedom and the public’s right to know — seeking to criminalize basic journalistic activity.”